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  • Writer's pictureTomás S. Ó Ceallaigh

‘Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness’ by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

The British countryside is a thing of diverse natural beauty. Regardless of where you live, you are never far from somewhere scenic, but such is the nature of our constant drive for that perfect Instagram picture, or to see our lives through an almost cinematic lens, that whole areas of landscape barely register in our consciousness anymore.

The writers themselves acknowledge that they had the idea for the book before they had a word to define what they were looking into. An essay by Marion Shoard gave them the word ‘Edgelands’. She had written: “It is time for the edgelands to get the recognition that Emily Bronte and William Wordsworth [gave to] moors and mountains and John Betjeman to the suburbs. They too have their story.”

‘Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness’ by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts attempts to look into those gaps between the urban landscape and the rolling countryside; the land at the edges and fringes of our towns and cities. What they do is examine the idea that our country isn't just made up of two binary opposites, but there are a range of almost undefinable places that exist too.

Just because these places are habitually unattractive, and the kinds of things you may find there equally so, the writers suggest that it doesn't mean that there isn't a form of inherent beauty in every one of them. Chapter titles like ‘Pylons’, ‘Wasteland’ and ‘Pallets’ superficially might not inspire a reader, but the authors attempt to reappraise these landscapes, whilst also exploring the temporal and transitory nature of such places that exist in our modern 'in-between'.

Both Farley and Symmons Roberts are poets, and this comes across in both their prose and the divergent range of sources and literary knowledge that has gone into Edgelands. Some of the flights of fancy and tangents they explore within their writing would take days for a reader to look at closely themselves, but are inspiring as the book itself.

Despite the literary whims and potentially drab subject matter, the detail and delivery is perfectly evocative of what’s being described. For example, the “nameless bridge” and “ its cast concrete walls and pillars” could be a feature of many built environments that we drive through daily, but how often do we slow down to consider how it is “dark with run off stains and vertical deltas of algae”? Rarely, I’m guessing.

As someone who has lived in a tower block overlooking six lanes of traffic in the past, one of the most sublime moments of description comes in the chapter on ‘Light’. The writers propose “For the insomniac, there might be some cold and baleful comfort to be found in visiting a motorway in the middle of the night… it’s like looking into a river of light, feeling the current of people you can never really know…” Although often frustrated with the pollution, the pseudo-meditative ambiance of the road at night did always mesmerise me, but I could never have articulated as well as that.

Edgelands rests somewhere between the genres of travel writing and nature writing. Rather than being full of introspection, it definitively and defiantly asks us to muse on what wildernesses there may be as close as the end of your own street.


Find out more about the idea behind the book on The Guardian's YouTube channel:

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